Select Page

An Open Letter to Dr. Jordan Peterson Regarding Suffering, Ethics, and Happiness

Dear Dr. Peterson,

Thank you for your defense of individualism in general and of free-speech in particular, and for your defiance of academic nihilism in general and Neo Marxist Postmodernism in particular. Your bestselling 12 Rules for Life; An Antidote to Chaos, your prominence on the Intellectual Dark Web, and your packed out auditoriums around the world, are encouraging signs that Enlightenment values survive the onslaughts from without and within. However, in the name of that Enlightenment project, I ask you to consider whether you break your rule number ten, about being precise in your speech, when you say: “Life is suffering.”

You say: “Life is suffering. That’s clear. There is no more basic, irrefutable truth,” and that this conviction is the “cornerstone” of your belief. If you had said instead: “everyone experiences suffering”, or: “life involves suffering,” who could disagree? But I respectfully dispute your assertion that: “life IS suffering”.  If that were literally true, the obvious solution would be to end it. And if it were clear that: “the baseline of life, is something like unbearable suffering,” what sort of sadist would you have to be to purposely bring a new child into a life sentence of that? Your rules, as I understand them, are predicated on the belief that people are capable of dealing with the challenges of life so that suffering can be marginalized rather than being “the norm”. So why do you insist that: “life IS suffering?” What have I missed? [1]⁠

I have read The Gulag Archipelago and many other horror stories of history, and my second book is about life in Pol Pot’s Kampuchea, so I know of what you speak. But since the Enlightenment we have considered dark ages, plagues, genocides, famines and the like to be aberrations of life as it could and should be. I am a quadriplegic, and members of my family have suffered worse afflictions, so I’m no stranger to suffering – not many people are. But we consider illnesses that make suffering the norm for the afflicted and their loved ones for a period of time to be aberrations, which are to be relieved and in most cases cured. When your daughter suffered so terribly for so long, you didn’t say: “that’s life!” You tried to cure her, on the assumption that her suffering was not life as it was meant to be and could be. And you know better than your opponents how the refusal to accept the inevitability of physical suffering has steadily reduced its prevalence decade by decade for the last two or three centuries. There can be suffering in life – but life is not suffering! [2]

If I understand the genesis of your life-is-suffering premise correctly, it evolved because, when your thinking progressed past the Christianity and socialism of your youth, you were confronted with relativists and subjectivists left and right, and you knew that they were leading us down the lane to chaos and destruction. So, like Rene Descartes, you searched for a foundation that you could not doubt. And you found it in: “The reality of suffering. It brooks no arguments. Nihilists cannot undermine it with skepticism. Totalitarians cannot banish it. Cynics cannot escape from its reality. Suffering is real, and the artful infliction of suffering on another, for its own sake, is wrong. That became the cornerstone of [your] belief.” Then you deduced that: “to place the alleviation of unnecessary pain and suffering at the pinnacle of your hierarchy of value is to work to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth”. In other words, the relief of suffering became your ethical axiom and your standard of value, by reference to which you rank your hierarchy of values, from increased suffering (the bad) to decreased suffering (the good). As Rene Descartes said, I think therefore I am, you in effect said: people suffer therefore they value. [2]

The problem is that, as Rene Descartes’ followers soon discovered, Cartesian doubt is not a valid foundation for a philosophy. Likewise, I submit, it does not yield a valid standard of value for an ethic (although I suspect its utility is derived from its link to the right standard – I’ll get to that). For one thing, a literal-minded believer might draw the conclusion I intimated above. For another it is only applicable to the negatives of life, it doesn’t motivate the positives. And it gets tangled up on the emotional level because emotions are derived from values, so if you derive your values from emotion, you go in circles.

Your search for an objective standard, against which effects can be ranked as good to bad and human causes as virtues to vices, is the vital step that multiculturalists amongst others have long since abandoned, leaving them unwilling to defend any Western value no matter how beneficial, against contrary values of other cultures no matter how detrimental, because moral relativism leaves each culture with its own inviolate “narrative” that may not be judged except on its own terms. Religions provide standards of value, which they get from revelations delivered via prophets and written down in holy texts, e.g. the Ten Commandments – but their validity in the end has to be taken on faith. The New Atheists, like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, absorb parts of the Judeo-Christian ethic, then kick out the foundation on which they stand, trusting that the ethical precepts will remain naturally as self evidently valid. I agree with you that their hijacked morality will not stand generation to generation without its foundation, but may be used selectively by corrupt power wielders (as the communists did).

Ayn Rand took a decidedly different approach. She started by identifying why living entities need values at all, then why humans need fundamental moral values, and her answers identified what the standard of values must be. She observed that living entities have values because they face a constant alternative: life or death. To a rosebush, its chlorophyll and sunshine are values; to a bird its wings and worms are values, because these promote the entity’s life. We humans can’t live by a rosebush’s values because our nature doesn’t include the capacity of photosynthesis, neither can we live by a bird’s values because our nature doesn’t include wings and instincts – we must live according to the values that our nature demands. But human nature doesn’t compel us to engage our human means of promoting our lives, we have to discover and implement our pro-life values by choice. We are the only species that can act against the requirements of its nature. But we cannot escape the consequences of our choices – hence our need for a pro-life code of moral values to live by.

If we choose to live, we have to identify our human nature and live accordingly. Some requirements of our life function automatically, such as heartbeats, immune systems, reflexes etcetera. But our distinctively human means of survival is reason, and reason is volitional. That is why we need to discover and hold our values consciously, and choose to act to gain and/or keep them voluntarily. A human being is a rational animal; therefore it ought to act rationally, if it wants to live. But it is not always self-evident whether an action is pro-life or anti-life in the long run. The range of choices we are confronted with are unlimited, and the repercussions of any action stretch into an expanding tree of effects that lead to causes that lead to future effects ad infinitum, which makes it impossible to calculate the effects of actions pragmatically (Utilitarianism notwithstanding). We need moral values in the form of principles that apply across-the-board to keep our options within the bounds of the pro-life. E.g. you may choose carpentry or accounting because both are ways of being productive, which is a virtue, but choosing to be a wastrel by default is not within the bounds of pro-life virtue.

We learn our values from our parents and/or the culture we grow up in, but sooner or later, in one way or another, we ask why this is good and that is bad. If I understand you correctly, your ultimate answer is: because this reduces suffering and that increases it. Ayn Rand’s ultimate answer is: because this is for your life as a human being and that is against it. According to her Objectivist Ethics, the proper standard of value, as dictated by the nature of reality including human nature, is: “man’s life, or: that which is required for man’s survival qua man.” It follows that since reason is our species’ most fundamental means of survival, it must be our primary value, and that since its operation is volitional, rationality must be our primary virtue. When that primary is coupled with other identifications of reality and human nature, the virtues of: independence, integrity, honesty, justice, productiveness and pride can be identified, and the initiation of force as an especially pernicious vice.[3]

Where Objectivist virtues coincide with Judeo-Christian virtues, it gives a non-sacrificial reason for following them, where it differs, it sets out its reasons. So adherents of the Objectivist Ethics aren’t expected to sacrifice their lives out of duty to commandments accepted on faith, or sacrifice their best interests as a duty to other people or society. They are expected to judge their best interest in an all-aspects-of-a-whole-of-life context, as the nature of our existence demands. E.g. they are expected to appreciate that delayed gratification is not a sacrifice and that respecting the rights of others is not being unselfish, rather these are principled applications of rational pro-life self-interest.

As I intimated above: I suspect the utility of your life-is-suffering standard of value lies in its link to the pro-life standard of value. On the level of sensations, suffering is a pain, which is your body’s way of telling you what to avoid for the sake of your life. So if you are anti-pain you are pro-life – unless your body is malfunctioning, or you know something it doesn’t. Sometimes you have to override your motivation to avoid pain, such as the pain of an injection or amputation. On the emotional level too, the role of suffering is to warn you that you are acting against your life – provided your emotions are programmed correctly. But there’s the rub! Your emotions are derived from your values; achieving them gives you a positive emotion, losing them a negative emotion; so if you derive your values from an emotion you are going in circles.

If a virtue is based on a pro-life action, let’s say on being productive, and you act immorally, let’s say by being lazy or destructive, you will suffer a negative emotion, let’s say shame or anxiety. That’s if your emotions are functioning as nature intended (as they do automatically for animals and infants) i.e. to encourage pro-life action. But if they are malfunctioning, let’s say with a work phobia, the malfunction can be identified and overridden, or reprogrammed with the help of psychotherapy. Whereas, if your moral value is based on an anti-suffering standard, you don’t question whether the emotion you suffer is malfunctioning because it is your standard. Let’s say you suffer from a work phobia, the obvious “solution” is to stop working. You might notice that the “solution” has bad effects on your life, but if you, therefore reverse your “solution”, you have moved on from an anti-suffering standard to a pro-life standard of value.

Life can involve suffering, but acting virtuously, according to a pro-life morality, minimizes it, because the pro-life is the anti-suffering. Life can also involve happiness, and because the pro-life is the pro-happiness, acting virtuously maximizes it. But by happiness I don’t mean hedonism. As Ayn Rand put it: “Happiness is not to be achieved at the command of emotional whims. Happiness is not the satisfaction of whatever irrational wishes you might blindly attempt to indulge. Happiness is a state of non-contradictory joy – a joy without penalty or guilt, a joy that does not clash with any of your values and does not work for your own destruction, not the joy of escaping from your mind, but of using your mind’s fullest power, not the joy of faking reality, but of achieving values that are real, not the joy of a drunkard, but of a producer. Happiness is possible only to a rational man, the man who desires nothing but rational goals, seeks nothing but rational values and finds his joy in nothing but rational actions.” ⁠[4]

The pursuit of happiness, as enshrined as an inalienable right in the American Declaration of Independence, is a distinctively Enlightenment perspective. But it is rooted in the Ancient Greek concept of Eudaemonia, which makes it a distinctively Western perspective. Life as suffering is a distinctively Eastern perspective. “Four Noble Truths on Suffering” constitute the cornerstone of Buddhism. But in the two and a half millennia of its reign, what did that religion do to improved the lot of human beings on this earth? The aim of Buddhism is not to improve your here-and-now, but for you to accept your suffering, which you deserve because of sins you committed in previous lives, and from which there is no escape, not even in death. In Western philosophy this “metaphysical pessimism” rears its head when philosophers turn away from this knowable reality, towards an otherworldly and/or unknowable realm. For example: Saint Augustine (who ushered in the Dark Ages), Arthur Schopenhauer and the existentialists (who ushered in the nihilism of postmodernism and…)

The philosophers who ushered in the knowledge and will to make this world a better place for humans to live in, were those who turned their face to this reality, to identify how we can know it, and how we can turn that knowledge into power, and turn that power into pro-human-life values. For example: Aristotle, and Saint Thomas Aquinas (who ushered in the Renaissance); and Francis Bacon, John Locke, Isaac Newton, and the “metaphysical optimists” of the Enlightenment. Whatever pro-human-life premises were bequeathed by the Judeo-Christian heritage, it was the revival of the Greek pro-reason influence that gave birth to the Enlightenment. And it was the Enlightenment’s elevation of reason and rights that gave birth to modern science, industry, political liberty, capitalism – and the products and services that stopped humans dying like flies, allowing the world’s population to rise from 1 to 7 billion, increasing life expectancy from 30 to 70 years, and reducing the prevalence of suffering so far that the prospect of a person living to a hundred and dying peacefully in bed, never having experienced acute or chronic pain, is no longer inconceivable.

Ayn Rand’s philosophy could be placed on the “metaphysical optimism” side of the divide, but she preferred to call it “the benevolent universe premise”, and she would probably call your view “the malevolent universe premise,” (which is akin to your “Hobbesian by temperament” identification). By “benevolent” Rand didn’t mean that the universe is designed to help or be kind to us, but that it does not play dice with us, so we can learn its laws, and by obeying them, we can command it to improve our lives. Which, if I understand them correctly, is what your twelve rules are designed to do. Your first rule is that we must stand up straight, with our shoulders back, accept responsibility and apply effort. This is, I submit, like most of your rules, a pro-life action. The ultimate purpose of such an action is the maintenance of your life (and the lives of your loved ones, and secondarily everyone else’s). But that ultimate benefit may be experienced along the way as relief of suffering – or as happiness. So pursuit of happiness is not only a political right but is morally right. When it comes to the best therapeutic strategy for people in a psychologically disturbed state, I bow to your expertise. But when it comes to a whole-of-life moral strategy, the maximization of the happiness reward has to be the other side of the minimizing of suffering coin. And, I submit, the more glorious side.

So…

 

Yours sincerely, John Dawson

On the beach in Melbourne

 

[1] Jordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos; Penguin, Random House Canada, 2018, p.161

[2] Peterson, 12 Rules, pp.197,198

[3] Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” The Virtue of Selfishness; A New Concept of Egoism, New York, The New American Library, 1964, pp.vii-34.
Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism, the Philosophy of Ayn Rand, Dutton, Penguin Group, New York, 1991, pp.206–324

[4] Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, Random House, New York, 1957 p.1022

Share This

Share this post with your friends!